ADVERTISEMENT

Residents try new voting system

  • Article by: Steve Brandt
  • Star Tribune
  • August 19, 2009 - 7:27 AM

Minneapolis voters have two big jobs ahead this fall. First, they have to remember to vote on Nov. 3, a day when few other Minnesotans are heading to the polls. Second, they need to learn a new voting system that no one else in the state is using.

Mock-ups of the ballot to be used in the new ranked-choice voting system have been crafted by the city. We've been spending some time distributing them among co-workers, neighbors and Minneapolitans to see how well people adapt to their newfound choices. The answer so far is pretty well, with one or two caveats.

How well ranked-choice voting works has implications beyond Minneapolis. St. Paul voters will decide in November whether to adopt the method, and places like Hopkins that are considering the method want to see how well it works in Minneapolis.

First, a word about ranked-choice voting, also known as instant-runoff voting. Regardless of whether you're voting for mayor, or to fill two seats on the Board of Estimate and Taxation, you'll get one vote that counts for sure. But you also get two other choices. They may or may not be counted.

That depends on whether first-choice votes are enough to get somebody over the hump, known as the threshold, for that particular race. For single-seat races like mayor or council or a Park Board district seat, the winning candidate needs 50 percent, plus one vote. For citywide multi-seat races, it's a lower threshold. All three winning at-large Park Board candidates need 25 percent, plus one vote. For the two-seat Board of Estimate and Taxation winners, it's 33 percent, plus one vote.

The good news for voters about ranked-choice voting is that it's easier to vote than to count the votes. We'll spare you the gory details on counting.

But there are still multiple opportunities for voting error.

The city has firmed up the instructions for ranked-choice voting and they're at the head of the mock ballot. There are two key points to remember. You can't list the same candidate for more than one choice in a race. And you can't name more than one person for one of your choices.

The city's test ballot has three mock questions. The first mimics a single-seat race: Voters are asked to list their first, second and third choices for best body of water in Minneapolis. The second mocks a multi-seat race: Voters list their choice of the best park in Minneapolis. The third mimics a charter referendum: It asks voters whether the bicycle ought to be the official city vehicle.

I'm pleased to report that the people that I live and work among are some pretty quick learners. All of them picked up without error the concept of awarding three separate priorities to three separate candidates. Several pronounced the new method relatively easy. But a few of them repeated a mistake that some voters make with traditional ballots -- not turning over their ballot and finishing the job. The referendum question was the most commonly overlooked.

Next we went to Hamilton Manor, a seniors-only public housing building in north Minneapolis. Some people there had trouble with the new ballot. Others didn't. We chose Hamilton in the Camden neighborhood deliberately because Council Member Barbara Johnson, who represents the area and opposes the ranked-choice method, has expressed apprehension about how seniors will fare with it.

About half of our sample of seniors in the community room at Hamilton passed with flying colors. They listed all three choices, didn't duplicate any of them, and completed all three ballot questions.

The remaining half over-voted, under-voted or skipped ballot questions. Most commonly, people didn't fill out their entire ballot, something that's common with traditional ballots, even when judges remind people that a ballot has elections on both sides.

More seriously, some voters made multiple selections for their first, second or third choices.

Under the city's ranked-choice ordinance, election judges will be allowed to make certain presumptions to correct some ballots where voters cast ballots that run afoul of ranked-choice voting protocols. Some mistakes won't be corrected, meaning no vote will be registered.

For example, if a voter accidentally lists two candidates as first choices, neither those nor the second and third choices will count. But if a voter lists two candidates as second or third choices, the valid choices above those choices will count.

Some voters, like Hamilton resident Patty Mohrbacker, are up to speed on the new method, and said voters will do fine as long as judges take the time to explain the new technique. With that in mind, interim Election Director Patrick O'Connor hopes to hire 30 percent more election judges for November than in the last city election in 2005.

"You just have to look at everything before you make your choices," is how Mohrbacker explains it. For those who want more information before Election Day, go to www.voteMinneapolis.org. You can view the mock ballot, learn about common errors, and for those of you who really need to get a life, read the city ordinance on ranked-choice voting.

If our math is right, voters will be asked to make up to 15 candidate selections on their ballots to fill eight city offices. You will help to elect a mayor, City Council member, district park commissioner, three citywide park commissioners and two Board of Estimate and Taxation members. There's also a referendum on abolishing the latter board, and possibly another on greater independence for the Park Board. While that may not lead to the same sort of voter fatigue as a seemingly unending list of unopposed district judges in the even-year elections, some voters may tire of the exercise.

In a related matter, we were updated on bullet voting recently by Ginnie Gelms, an election tech who is the city's go-to person for ranked-choice voting.

Bullet voting, for those who don't practice it, has nothing to do with putting armed guards at the polls. Instead, it's a long-used technique that's employed by fervent supporters of candidates in multi-seat elections, such as citywide park commissioner, where three people will be elected.

Bullet voters mark their ballot with fewer than the number of votes they are allowed -- say one or two of the three in this case -- to maximize their candidate's chances.

But it's not necessary under ranked-choice voting. That's because the first-choice vote that you cast can never be undercut by your second or third choices. That's because a voter's second or subsequent choice is counted only if the voter's first choice is eliminated (for single-seat and multiple-seat elections) or elected (for multiple-seat elections).

Of course, you can still bullet vote if not enough candidates meet your standards.

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

© 2014 Star Tribune